The religion of ancient Greece

The sanctuary of Dodone
© Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
The sanctuary of Dodone was one of the great religious centers of ancient Greece (of 2600 av. J.C at the 4th century). It was devoted to the worship of the goddess of the fertility (Hera-Dione) and to Zeus.


For the Greeks of Antiquity, religion and mythology were closely dependant. It is besides primarily by the myths, such that we report them Homère and the classic authors, that the Greek religion is known for us. The object of this article is however not the talk of these myths nor the characteristics of each god of the Greek Pantheon, subjects which are covered in addition, but we will approach here primarily the description and the history of the worships, and the general lines of the religious thought of the Greeks and, in particular, its relationship with philosophy.   One knows little about the first people which invaded Greece, but one knows that they brought with them Zeus, god of the sky, father of the gods and the men, Master of the sky and the atmospheric phenomena and guard of the hearth, as many characteristics as it will preserve during all the traditional age. The Greek religion, very flexible, could assimilate elements coming from the people autochtones of the Greek peninsula or Minoan civilization. The large features characteristic of the religion and mythology Greek - for example anthropomorphism of its gods - go up at the time Mycenaean (towards 1580-1100 av. J. - C.), but its character chthonien (of chthôn, which means “ground”) finds its origins in pre-Hellenic worships. The Minoan influence is more difficult to evaluate.  
The Minoan religion
The principal divinity of the Minoan religion was a goddess associated with wild animals or snakes, or with the fertility of the ground and the birth. One is unaware of if it acts separate divinities or aspects different from only one and even goddess, but the analogy with certain Asian worships makes it possible to lean for the second solution. This goddess-mother, who takes care on the fruitfulness of nature, appears according to the cases like the mistress of the animals, the goddess-snake or the goddess of the family. She had a young husband, who took care on the animals.
The pertaining to worship objects, as the axe, occupy a great place in the Minoan religion, very near to nature. On the other hand, the aspect chthonien there is not very developed, except that the Large Goddess is sometimes regarded also as the Ground-Mother. The Minoans perhaps believed in a life after death; they often buried their deaths (in large earthenware jars inside the house) and drinkings offered to them.
The Mycenaean religion
The Minoan diagrams reappear in the Mycenaean religion. The objects of worship are the same ones, and, in both cases, the absence of large temples is noted. However, the warlike character of Mycenaean will involve changes of religious order. The tendency to anthropomorphism develops, and the Mycenaean divinities take distinct names and functions. Among the Homeric gods already quoted in Mycenaean texts, one counts Zeus, Artémis, Athéna, Déméter, Péan (one of the names of Apollo), Héra, Hermes and Dionysos. In other words, the Olympian divinities go up in pre-Homeric Greece. At Homère, Artémis is the mistress of the animals; she thus shows a continuity with the Minoan goddess. In the same way, Déméter goes down from the Cretan goddess under her aspect of Ground-Mother; Athéna goes down from the goddess-snake Cretan, which is also represented in the shape of a bird, and it reappears in Mycènes with a shield, as it is appropriate to a warlike goddess. She announces Athéna d' Homère, which took care on the Acropolis with its crowned snake, its owl, its shield and its olive-tree.
In general, the Mycenaean divinities are individualized enough; they are thus distinguished from the Minoan, anthropomorphic but badly definite divinities, and announce the very personalized Homeric gods. The Mycenaean ones buried their deaths; they raised splendid tombs for the princely characters and placed various food and objects there, which would seem to show that they believed in a life after death.

The religion of traditional Greece

The Homeric gods, completely anthropomorphic and equipped with quite distinct personalities, live in family on the Olympe mount. Although prone to passions and the human failures, they are immortal and have superhuman powers. Their social life and their way of behaving are those of the Mycenaean aristocracy; their morals reflects the ideals of the aristocratic knighthood, where the direction of justice and the honor dominates. Their relations with the men are, as a whole, rational, as between a higher class and a lower class. One can alleviate them or make them change opinion by sacrifices or oaths, and they can intervene in the human business. Control that they exert on the events is badly defined, because a man has his destiny (moired, or “allotted portion”), and, beyond of a certain point, even a god cannot more anything. Zeus could not save death his/her Sarpédon son. The existence after death is immaterial and without interest. Deaths are burned and their hearts go in the underground world (the “house of Hadès”), lugubrious place where the existence is empty and futile. Only some right men, who generally have close links with the gods, gain the Elysées fields.
The worship of the hero, practiced on the tombs of the generals of war, occupies a paramount place in the Greek religion. This veneration of the ancestors goes certainly back to the first Greeks, because the royal burials of Mycènes attest already the belief in a new existence for the late princes. Through the invocation of the heart of the Tirésias soothsayer (Odyssey, delivers XI, towards 23-50), or the description of the funerary rites which accompany death by Patrocle (Iliade, deliver XXIII, towards 1-257), the Homeric poems show the survival of this belief. They mention also many heroes whose worship will remain very a long time.
The hero thus venerated, who, often, formerly was a mortal, has the power to help the alive ones or to harm to them; he is often associated with a precise locality, that where he has his tomb. If it is buried abroad, it is important, to be able to call upon it to repatriate its bones. Thébains thus tried to find the skin of Odipe and, at the time history, the Athenians brought back of Scyros the bones of Thésée. The same gods are adored in multiple communities, but the local hero grants to his city the protection which it needs in its warlike or different companies. This worship of the hero thus takes an particular importance at the time of the autonomous cities. The founder of a Greek colony could also become the hero about it. The beliefs relating to the powers of these heroes are well described by Eschyle in its tragedy Choéphores.  
Cosmogony and théogonie
At Homère, Zeus reigns on an established order, but the first myths of cosmogony and théogonie inform us about the former beliefs. Théogonie d' Hésiode (towards 750 av. J. - C.) is closer to the popular beliefs than the epopees of Homère. At the beginning, explains Hésiode, was the Vacuum (Chaos), who generated Darkness (Erèbe) and the Night, the Day and the Light, but also the Earth (Gaia), who carried the Sky (Ouranos) and the Ocean. The Earth and its son, the Sky, gave rise to many creatures, among which giants and the Titans, of which twelve are known by their name. Young person among them, Cronos, became the Master of the world by mutilating Ouranos, but testicles thus sliced were born Hécatonchires (giants with the hundred arms), Erinyes, the nymphs and the Aphrodite goddess. De Cronos and of his/her Rhéa sister will be born later six from the Olympic gods, the of which Zeus, youngest, which will attack his/her father and will overcome the Titans to become the supreme Master. Contrary to the system of Hésiode, it is advisable to quote the orphic cosmogony, which attaches a great importance to Eros like creative great principle. Hésiode, with its personifications of abstract qualities, its myths more primitive and its parallels striking with Hittite and Babylonian mythologies, systematized a set of popular beliefs; the orphic doctrines are more philosophical.  
Gods and men
The Greek religion, generally and except the religions with mystery, does not have a body of doctrines. It requires its faithful ones that they observe the ritual ones in the frame of mind which agrees. Moreover, the great religious festivals which are held regularly are the occasion of sacrifices, of contest of athletics, processions and stage performances. The participation in these festivals is thus an at the same time religious and political act. But the great public demonstrations, like Panathénées of Athens, entirely do not satisfy the religious needs for the population. Many pertaining to worship acts are thus practiced into private or within family setting. In the rural company depicted by Hésiode, the farmer observes many interdicts and carries out small ritual acts to attract himself the benevolence of the gods. Later, small sanctuaries will rise a little everywhere in the campaigns, but also in the cities, where certain families honor by offerings simple - a garland of flowers, for example, or some wine drops as a drinking - the divinity with the house.  
There is no clergy, but there exist special liturgical functions like those of the Pythea with Delphes or the hereditary priesthood of Eumolpides with Eleusis. The statue of the god is inside the temple, but of it sometimes a second ago outside; the public worships are practiced in the open air.  
The Greek religion of the traditional age is as a whole optimistic and rational. The gods are interested of close with the human business; the man expects to be well treated gods if it correctly fills the share which returns to him in the relation. The ethical side is less well defined: the gods indeed have very different characters, since the Hermes amoral of the Anthem at Homeric Hermes, until the Zeus right of Agamemnon d' Eschyle.  
The Greeks, who have also their superstitions and their fears concerning the future, practice rites magic, generally very simple, such as the wearing of amulets. Sorcery is not unknown; its followers venerate Hécate, which is in the beginning a goddess of the ground in Asia Mineure. Predict and prophecies occupy on the other hand an important place. Zeus and Apollon, in particular, know the future, which they announce by the voice of oracles, of which largest are those of Zeus with Dodone and Apollo with Delphes. This last center receives delegations which come from everyone Greek to seek there councils political or religious, but also of the people who consult on a purely private basis. Apollo speaks by the mouth about a priestess, the Pythea, which one thinks of being “had” by the god. Its remarks are interpreted by the priests and are transcribed in worms for the applicant. Athens and other cities have “exegetes thus”, i.e. “interpreters” officially appointed like representatives of Apollo to give religious matter councils.  

The Homeric religion grants little place to the speculations on the life after death and does not leave any hope reach immortality, but there exists in parallel of the worships chthoniens of old origin. They put especially concerned of the heroes, of which some, such Amphiaraos, were absorbed in the entrails of the ground. In the returned worship with Trophonios (in Levadhia), the faithful ones were to go down under ground. Another vestige chthonien is the fact that the tripod of the Pythea is placed above a crack in the ground, because the divination and the worships chthoniens often go hand in hand.
The legend of Déméter was played each year at the time of the mysteries of Eleusis. As a practitioner this rite of Mycenaean origin, by sharing the myth of the rebirth of Perséphone and the revival of the fruitfulness of the ground, the participants found themselves the spiritual revival, the purification and the hope of a better life on ground and after death.  
The Dionysiac myths will be integrated in the mysteries orphic, which one does not know the origin exactly nor the seniority. The orphism is only Greek worships to have crowned texts, a cosmogony, and a mythology which recognizes with the human nature a divine element. The orphic doctrines preach the moral purity, and its mysteries make it possible to hope in a better life and a form of immortality. Time of the Greek political size, the men little needed the comforts of the orphism, but the mysteries, such those of Eleusis, will find a renewal of popularity with the decline of the city and the Homeric religion.  
Philosophy and religion

From the VI E century, the Ionian Greek philosophers will speculate in the nature of the universe with a intellectual freedom which does not meet any religious restriction. While Hésiode gives to its cosmogony the form of a myth, the philosophers ignore the gods. Millet Anaximene (towards 540 av. J. - C.) uses the term théos (god) to indicate the air, which, for him, is the paramount substance constitutive of the universe. Xénophane de Colophon (towards 525 av. J. - C.) is very critical with respect to the Homeric gods: “Homère and Hésiode, he says, allotted to the gods all that was ashamed and dishonouring at the men”. It rejects the anthropomorphism and uses the word “god” to indicate the whole world which, for him, is a living being. Héraclite d' Ephèse (towards 500 av. J. - C.) is opposed to the religious rites, and in particular to the sacrifices of animals. These philosophers - but also of others, as Pythagore which is deeply monk - highly feel all the insufficiencies of the Homeric anthropomorphism.
While seeking to explain the relation who links the man with the macrocosm, the philosophers contribute to sap the bases of the Greek religion. This critical movement becomes extensive particular to Athens, in particular at the end of the O C century. In its comedy the Clouds (423 av. J. - C.), Aristophane makes fun of the lesson of the sophists which demythologize the gods, and it is for atheism that the Athenian conservatives will condemn Socrate to dead in 399 av. J. - C. Plato, as for him, wishes to exclude from its program of teaching the history of the gods such that Homère brings it back. At the end of the IV E century, the traditional religion irréversiblement is irréversiblement weakened; only the worships with mysteries preserve their popularity. For the remainder, philosophy brings to the men the certainty which they do not find any more in one religion in lose speed.  
To the III E front century J. - C., stoicism gains ground. Cléanthe (towards 270) calls the supreme divinity “Zeus who interpenetrates all”, but this god is actually only one philosophical principle to which it is difficult to dedicate a worship. Epicure (towards 280) thinks that the gods exist but that they do not have any influence on the human life; for him, the traditional religion is a superstition. The decline of the old gods appears clearly in the Hellenistic habit which consists in deifying alive men. It is not astonishing under these conditions that spreads the doctrines of Evhémère (towards 300), for which gods, at the origin, were men. The traditional religion thus undergoes the attacks of the rationalists, but also those of scholars like the poet Callimaque alexandrine (towards 260 av. J. - C.).  
The interest for the old gods remains at the time Roman, even if the gods themselves “died”. The standardization of the myths under literary form completes their fossilization. The Latin poet Ennius (towards 185 av. J. - C.) compares the twelve Olympian divinities to twelve Latin gods - names under whom today they are better known -, but the worship that the Romans will dedicate to them will not never have strength nor the spontaneousness of the beginnings of the Greek religion. This collapse being accompanied by a weakening of the Greek political institutions, the religious feeling - which had a strong civic and collective dimension - becomes an private affair as well as possible. The men are interested more in the ethical problems and policies that in the question of their death. Worships with mysteries bring answers, which explains the renewal of favor of which they profit in all the layers from the company, even if the cultivated classes prefer to seek the comfort necessary in philosophy. In the countryside, the local pertaining to worship practices will survive, by taking a quasi Christian form sometimes.  
The vacuum left by the disappearance of the gods is filled moreover by the astrology and new imported divinities of the East. Of all the Greek gods, only Asclépios is still venerated at the Hellenistic age; as a god of medicine and cure, he meets eternal needs indeed.  
Soon, Christianity will absorb the vestiges of paganism and will be based on the lesson of the philosophers (and in particular of stoical) to establish his position as a dominant religion.